Belfast Telegraph

Boutiques bearing brunt of recession

By Margaret Canning

Once marketed as the Bond Street of Belfast, the Lisburn Road is facing a growing number of shop closures as traders struggle to beat the downturn.

The south Belfast boulevard was once shortlisted for the title of best fashion street by Google Street View, but it is feared the recession, coupled with the growing offering of the city centre, is making shoppers stay away.

At least five shops have pulled down their shutters since November. There are around 40 vacant units, while other businesses have had sale signs in their windows for weeks, with one retailer holding a liquidation sale to shift old stock. In one fashion shop, assistants discussed falling footfall and recited the names of retailers who have departed from the road in recent months. “We used to take £8,000 or £9,000 on a Saturday, but now a busy day for us means £2,000 or £3,000,” one assistant said.

However, traders in the area are confident it still has a long-term future as a retail hotspot.

They argue the road’s predicament is no worse than anywhere else, and point to new openings, including cafe The Other Place and pizzeria Little Wing, expected in the near future.

Hugo Thomas, chairman of the Lisburn Road Business association, said: “It was once described as the Bond Street of Belfast. Maybe that was too much. Now it’s more appropriate to describe it as the King’s Road of Belfast — ecclectic and varied with something everyone can afford. We don’t want people to think you have to have a six-figure salary to come and shop here.” People have looked at the to let signs and allowed themselves to wallow in doom and gloom, he said.

“Everyone has become a bit sensitive. But things have been sensationalised. It is the same everywhere — there are openings and closures. It is the normal ebb and flow of business and of the economy.”

He and fellow association member Mark Taylor said there was an explanation behind every closure, from retirement, to a lessee reaching the end of a lease to another deciding to emigrate to Australia. They point to the positives — well-founded buzz that Costa Coffee will be opening on the road. A ladies’ formal wear business which moved from Bloomfield Avenue, said to be “absolutely flying” in its new south Belfast location.

“There are a lot of positives there,” said Mr Thomas, who argued that “mature businesses” would weather the difficult economic climate. “There was no point in people coming who thought the Lisburn Road was paved with gold. There would have been a lot of that, instead of people who are in business to do it properly and make a profit. It’s the end of hobby boutiques.”

But all Lisburn Road businesses were suffering because of high rents and high rates, he said. “Landlords need to understand they are in it with the retailer. They need to take a more sensitive approach to rent reviews. The Irish government has outlawed upward-only rent reviews from February 28 and that kind of move is needed here.”

A small retailer could pay £12,000 rates and around £21,500 in rent for a site on the Lisburn Road. One association member said: “The cost base is too high, because of rent and rates. We are all here to sell a product and to do a turn. And even though the price of buildings is falling like stones — somewhere which was once worth £1m is now £600,000 — there is no fall in rent or rates.”

The association hopes politicians will support their attempts to get the needs of the road onto the agenda. In the meantime, agents are confident about the future.

Ryan McKenna, an agent with McKibbins, said: “There is still a lot of interest on the road. Traders do say that high rents have been a problem, but ultimately rents are coming down to a more sustainable level. There is a great interest there and we have had a couple of lets on the road — like Angelos [handbags] in Lesley Plaza.”

Gareth Gibson, a partner in Douglas Huston Chartered Surveyors, also said the outlook was positive. “There has been a substantial increase in new enquiries and new developments such as 629 Lisburn Road starting to attract interest. Rental levels are reflective of the current market conditions.”

He said the vacancy rate for shop units on the road was around 10%.

Last week a report by the Local Data Company said one in eight shops in UK high streets were empty — though its study did not include Northern Ireland.

Anne Brennan moved Harper, a handbag and shoe shop and children’s wear shop from the Lisburn Road last year, and said high rents and rates influenced her decision. “A man from Christian Dior came over to see the business when it was in the Lisburn Road, and he was astounded by what we were paying. He said: ‘You could get somewhere in central Paris for that’.

“Having said that, we were always a destination shop in the Lisburn Road and we did well there. You can’t knock the Lisburn Road.”

Belfast Telegraph